The Knack … and How to Get It: “caprice and candyfloss with a dark undercurrent”

 Navigating the Tricky Sexual Waters of the Past Through the Lens of a Comedy Puffball.

Inspired by the original stage play by Ann Jellicoe, a leading proponent of the 1960s New Wave theatre, The Knack is a tale of a naïve northern lass, Nancy, (Rita Tushingham) who comes to live down that London and is confronted by its whacky and disturbing ways. It also concerns a shy school teacher, Colin, (Michael Crawford) who wants to gain more sexual experience so turns to his very experienced friend, Tolen (Ray Brooks) for (inappropriate) advice.

The Knack is full of the joie de vivre that you’d see in an Italian or French film of the period and genre and yet, somehow it’s English. It won Best Picture at Cannes in 1965. On the one hand, there is the European gaze of cherchez la femme in the nouvelle vague style Jellicoe was famous for: wide eyed, coquetish friends rushing around an exciting city having fun. On the other hand there’s the darker aspects of sexual attack, the madness inherent in city life, predators, immorality and judgement.

It is important to note that this film is not a facsimile of the original play but often a jumping off point into fantasy. The humour is mostly surreal. In the most iconic sequence, the characters push a metal bed frame across London. Crawford brings his trademark slapstick clowning skills effectively. The filming itself is reminiscent of such wacky 1960s shows as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh in, except it’s in monochrome. Director Richard Lester also helmed two Beatles films: A Hard Day’s Night and Help, which have the feel of sketches interspersed with music videos.

In a very 60s segment, a young lady uses a photo booth to remove all her clothes, take the shots and get dressed again, while a man holds her clothes outside. This scene is apropos of nothing, adds nothing to the plot, just provides evidence of the period and confronts Nancy with one of her earliest encounters when first arriving down that London. Monks are seen queuing up to buy the Reader’s Digest from a vending machine. It could be a depiction of a Lennon lyric. Colin steps over bodies covered with shrouds on the grass near his school like some art installation. These random inclusions seem to convey the quirkiness of the period and the oddness of the big city.

The frivolity can be problematic though, as it is sustained throughout scenes concerning a possible rape of Nancy, which makes uncomfortable viewing fifty years later. Tolen, looking like a young Dirk Bogarde, is relentless in his pursuit of women, especially the resistant Nancy. On and on he chases her, around the house, outside through the streets, into some public gardens. Finally catching her, she loses consciousness and wakes to believe she has been raped, publicly declaring this. This is the first time Tolen has considered his actions from the women’s point of view and it becomes a turning point. A change for Tolen is inevitable. His single-mindedness is dismissive of context and consequence; thus when there is a problem, the fallout is pronounced. In an early example of reappropriation, Jellicoe ensures Nancy regains power.

The film is of the period and contains other elements which would be seen as sexist, misogynist or possibly criminal today. A group of school girls do PE overlooked by a group of rain-coated men and excited school boys. Tolan advises: “Women like to be dominated.” A queue of women to see Tolen are afterwards ‘rewarded’ with pendants and Green Shield stamps. He also thinks it’s a great idea if his mate Rory shares his women, as if they were two dozen vol-au-vents at a buffet. The scenes are shown from the male point of view as harmless fun. Today, the school would be calling the police, and Tolen would be on some sort of watch list as a cult leader.

Pronouncements such as “Women are not individuals, just types … man must dominate. Dominate!” and “Girls don’t get raped unless they want it” are indicative of the casual beliefs of the period about sexual attack. Just the fact rape was being mentioned would have been shocking at the time. Now it’s just vintage with a curled lip of cruelty.

John Barry’s score contains many of the elements that would be come familiar in his later compositions for Bond films as well as atmospheric period jazz touches. Creeping, stealthy beats, sweeping strings, gentle symbol taps, bongos, plucked cello, excellent deployment of the Hammond and a flourish of horns bring a feel of sophisticated city life and the discordance it can provoke.

The editing by Anthony Gibbs is experimental, choppy and impressionistic, and gained many plaudits for innovation at the time. There are a lot of jump cuts, scenes that are sped up or slowed down, reversed and non-sequential dialogue in something reminiscent of what William Burroughs did with the novel or George Martin was doing over at Abbey Road. There’s innovative use of vox pops, new to the period, as real life members of the older generation stare at the actions of the young people and pass judgemental comments, voiced by actors. In the original play, these speeches were delivered by Tom (Donal Donelly), the understated hero of the piece.

There are a lot of extras to tuck into in this new release. A clip of an early Alec Guinness performance in Exit the King, interviews with Richard Lester, Rita Tushingham and Keith Johnstone. There is also a similarly experimental film entitled Captain Busby: The Even Tenour of Her Ways.

The whole film is a period piece that has caprice and candyfloss but also a dark undercurrent that is still relevant today.

The Knack … and How To Get It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Woodfall films Boxset.

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